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My Gimmick is Jiu-Jitsu… Part II

The week of my in-ring debut had arrived.

I was fortunate to have my instructor, Jonathan Sedgwick as my prospective opponent. This gave us the opportunity to plan the match in tandem and run over it numerous times to the point it felt comfortable and smooth.

In the spirit of my favourite all-time wrestler, Randy ‘Macho Man’ Savage, I had written our plan down in its entirety. Savage had purportedly done this before his legendary contest with Ricky Steamboat at Wrestlemania 3, much to the derision of his contemporaries who thought it only proper to ‘call it’ in the ring. I scribed the match in the most intricate of detail: the sequence of holds, reversals, finishers, I even included brackets detailing the points where I should ‘sell’ the inflicted pain; colour coding my actions and those of my opponent. I revised it over and over; visualising my movements from the moment I stepped through the curtain to my exit from the ring, I did this continuously until I had each nuance down to a science.

This meticulous preparation didn’t allow me to escape the nerves. My existence had been plunged into a general disquiet. The sense of foreboding had been increasing incrementally as the week crept slowly towards Saturday. My emotions crescendoed the night before the show when nervousness swelled to all-out fear, my mind was consumed with dread.

When you first compete in jiu-jitsu there really isn’t much of an expectation upon you, a medal on your debut is a bonus. However, with pro-wrestling, I would be in a venue full of people, all of whom would be expecting something that looked good, what if I completely sucked? My fear was compounded after being informed that my match would be on last, while it wouldn’t be a packed Madison Square Garden, there would more than enough people to look like a complete tit in front of.

I arrived at the venue on the day of the show. Now that I was going to be ‘working’, I was permitted into the closed world of the wrestler’s dressing room, it wouldn’t surprise anyone to know that it was a pretty bizarre place. The small room was overflowing with some of the most colourful characters; dudes getting in and out of tight garish attire, some applying face-paint and meretricious accessories. There were cats deep in conversation going through the physics of their matches – which differed immensely depending on whether they were involved in straight singles, triple threats, four-ways or tag team contests. This was a packed room where it wasn’t deemed out of the ordinary to see a vertical suplex being practiced. Testosterone fuelled conversation dominated proceedings, while the air that hung over us all was thick with the stench of stinky-ass pads and wrestling boots.

While all this went on around me, I attempted to treat it like any BJJ competition, keeping my same routine in a futile attempt to limit my nerves. Completing my mobility drills proved troublesome given the spatial constrictions. My attempt to focus with a little Tribe Called Quest was neigh impossible, with my headphones cranked up to the maximum Q-Tip was drowned out by the cacophony of noise resonating from the jam-packed dressing room, shouts from the crowd and the booming sound of rock music which introduced the wrestlers.

There was an abundance of nervous energy in the dressing room, it manifested itself in a variety of ways from the persistent tapping of feet to those sitting in quiet contemplation. I was visibly scared – to the point that fellow wrestlers were attempting to buoy me – each providing their own experience of being in the ring for the first time – each person had a little nugget of wisdom, but, I invariably didn’t hear any of it as I was trapped in the self-indulgence of my own fear.

My anxiety had centred on the idea of being out there with a mouth as dry as the surface of Arrakis, completely unable to swallow, consequently forgetting what I was supposed to be doing and looking like a complete penis in front of my girlfriend, friends, and kids from my school who had discovered that their teacher was a ‘wrestler’. I have always had a strange relationship with fear, before my competitive career in jiu-jitsu, when faced with the sickening feeling of fight or flight, shamefully, on occasion I would fly.

As I walked through the curtain any angst dissolved in a flash, akin to stepping on the mats at a jiu-jitsu competition, I felt ready to go. Andrea Bocelli’s ‘Con te partirò announced my entrance, and I started doing my thing as Francis Darwin. However, my fastidious planning and visualisation predictably went out of the window after the initial sequence – when my mind went completely blank and I had no idea what I was doing, fortunately this was only a momentary lapse, a back suplex soon brought me back to the script.
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The story of the bout played out like I was the experienced grappler from a real combat sport and my opponent, Jonathan couldn’t keep up with my jiu-jitsu as I chained submissions together. I became frustrated at his resilience and my inability to finish him, at which point I started to throw strikes. As a result of applying my finisher, the trusty rear-naked choke, the referee caught in the crossfire was ‘knocked out’, my submission failed and I was hit with my opponent’s super-kick finish. Some nefarious antics took place, outside interference led to a baseball bat shot on Jonathan, which ensured that I picked up the three count.

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It was hardly a five-star performance right out of the gate but I don’t think it was a completely inauspicious debut. The sense of elation that I felt after arriving backstage was analogous to stepping off the mats after winning a competition, my head was above the clouds. I was truly awestruck and remained that way for the rest of the evening, food tasted better, music sounded doper, life seemed like the pinnacle of awesomeness.

Without wanting to dive into an uncharted level of cheese, after being a fan from the age of six and it being a constant in my life ever since, having a professional wrestling match had been the culmination of a life’s dream.

My original intention was to train, have one match and document my experience – but as it stands I think the gi is going to have to stay in the closet a bit longer now that I’m officially a wrassler!

 

 

 

 

My Gimmick is Jiu-Jitsu…

About three and a half months ago I put my beloved Gi(s) to one side. The decision to walk away from something that meant everything to me and pretty much defined my existence had not been easy, but I felt an irresistible pull to pursue my childhood goal of becoming a pro-wrestler, if only for one match. At thirty-three, with a lot of grappling-based mileage, time was running out before my body completely fell to pieces. In the interests of honesty, I hadn’t gone completely cold turkey with jiu-jitsu, I was still training and teaching no-gi.

While learning the craft of pro-wrestling – I seemed to pick up the basics relatively quickly, my legit grappling background paid dividends. The concept of bumping was essentially just break-falling, something that came naturally after years of cats dumping me on my head. I have always been highly averse to pain, and often prone to hyperbole in regard to the extent I was actually suffering, especially when it came to accidents on the mats, so the idea of ‘selling’ being beaten up came quite naturally.

I had not been attempting to reinvent the wheel, sticking to what I knew, I immediately set about amending my jiu-jitsu to something that could be ‘worked’ within the confines of a pro-wrestling match, while, looking aesthetically pleasing for those watching. It has been a lot of fun and creatively satisfying applying my own skill-set to this medium, once you get over the fact that some of the stuff that looks awesome is in-fact completely redundant when working with an unwilling partner.

When it came to grappling, or life really, I had not been endowed with a modicum of athleticism, without that to bring to the table, I was immediately precluded from busting out any 450 splashes or top rope moonsaults. I endeavoured to avoid anything risky that was likely to cause, not only immediate pain, but lasting injury. Sadly, this idea was not foolproof. I took a DDT in a way that appeared I was craving a spinal injury. Rather than reacting the way I was taught, I instead decided on driving my neck directly into the mat. It made a pretty gross crunching sound that would have made Jake the Snake wince. I visualised my vertebrae being driven into each other at breakneck speed, fortunately there didn’t seem to be any serious damage, well, if you discount perpetual soreness.

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I created a character, Francis Darwin. His genesis came from my Grandfather, a bodybuilder-cum-pro-wrestler who used the alias ‘Young Atlas’ while wrestling on shows during the late 1940s and 1950s. I wanted to pay homage to him, but, truth be told, I am neither young or indeed strong enough to hold up the sky, as the Greek myth of Atlas foretold, so I settled on Francis, his Christian name. ‘The evolution of submission wrestling’ had a nice ring to it, so Darwin it was. Of course, I decided upon this moniker prior to discovering that Charles Darwin himself had actually had a son named Francis, a respected botanist in his own right. In light of this information, Francis Darwin the wrestler won’t be climbing to the pinnacle of Google search any time soon.

Reproduced with permission of Ron Historyo and the awesome guys at wrestlingheritage.com
Reproduced with permission of Ron Historyo and the awesome guys at wrestlingheritage.com

 

Playing off my own experiences, well, if I was a complete bastard, Darwin would be an arrogant grappler with a style combining BJJ with a little traditional British chain wrestling and some Japanese strong style. The dude had no respect for the art of pro-wrestling. He had travelled the world training and competing with the best grapplers; to him pro-wrestling was completely inane and below his contempt.

Prior to my in-ring debut, I had been involved in a couple of shows for the promotion UK Wrestling. I was used as a plant in the crowd who went on to distract one of the wrestlers. I also interfered during the main event of the previous show, choking out my would-be opponent and setting up the angle for my match. This had been fun – I’d had no nerves whatsoever, being out in front of a crowd and attempting to choke dudes was something that I had experience with. The idea of someone letting me strangle them or at least simulate it with no resistance made for a refreshing change.

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Nevertheless, there was a big difference between being comfortable competing BJJ in front of a crowd and pro-wrestling in front of them. Jiu-Jitsu contests were products of hours, weeks, months and years of time on the mats, drilling and rolling. When you have access to the flow state, it is as if your body automatically knows how to beat your opponent. And it really doesn’t matter how you win, as long as that is the eventual outcome. But, being out in front of a crowd and working a whole choreographed ten-minute contest, where you had to remember specific things, and you had to actively please a crowd, altering your actions based on their response, this was an altogether different matter.

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With my debut fast approaching the fear had begun to kick in.

Competing BJJ in Brazil with Jake Mackenzie

Canadian born black-belt, embedded resident of Rio, and renowned half-guard practitioner, Jake Mackenzie is a certified gringo legend of jiu-jitsu competition in Brazil, competing in around 200 tournaments since his debut in 2002. He is a multiple time Brazilian National Teams Champion representing GFTeam and a 2-time black-belt Brazilian National No-Gi Champion. Jake has an unquenchable thirst for jiu-jitsu competition and the lifestyle of travel and adventure that accompanies it.

I had a chance to pick the brain of this self-professed “jiu-jitsu nerd” on his experiences of competing in the cradle of jiu-jitsu.

When was your first experience competing in Brazil? What was that like?

My first tournament in Brazil was the 2003 Mundial in Tijuca Tennis Club.

I remember being super nervous because I couldn’t understand the names they were saying in Portuguese and I was so worried about not understanding my name when they called me. I ended up losing the first match, but I remember the energy and all the great matches at black belt! It was amazing to participate in three Mundials in Rio, I wish the IBJJF would bring the worlds back to Brazil at some point. But I highly doubt that will happen.

As a ridiculously well-travelled competitor – can you think of any nuances that separate competing in Brazil from anywhere else?

I believe the talent pool is still much deeper in Brazil, especially in states like Rio, São Paulo and Manaus. Every state you go to in Brazil has super tough guys to compete against, but, if you go to one of these hubs there is going to be several top level guys in each division. The major international tournaments are all outside of Brazil now, but all the guys that are winning are still from Brazil. Many of the best instructors live in California, NY, etc. But all them made their way and sharpened their skills in the jiu-jitsu scene in Brazil.

What is your most memorable moment or moments competing on the mats in Brazil?

I have had so many great memories over my career, but by far the biggest one that sticks out is the Brazilian National Teams Title in 2010. I had been training and competing for about 4 months at GFTeam and was selected to be one of the 5 competitors on their A squad for the National Team Tournament.

In the history of the tournament there had never been a three-time Champion at black belt. GFTeam had won 2008 and 2009 and was looking to be the first 3-time champion. Atos showed up with a killer team, Rafael Mendes, Guilherme Mendes, Davi Ramos, Ed Ramos, and Bruno Frazzato. Theodoro and Tanquinho ended up winning the first and third matches, but Atos took the second and fourth so we were tied 2-2. I ended up fighting the 5th and final fight and deciding the tournament. I won a great back and forth match against Ed Ramos. The fight was tied up on points and advantages until the last 10 seconds. I was able to sweep to the mount just as the match ended to get the advantage.

Given the size and prestige of the competitions that now take place in North America and even in Europe, is there any reason for someone to go out of their way to compete in Brazil?

Brazil is an amazing experience, every competitor should take the trip down and feel the energy and atmosphere of a tournament in Brazil. They have had jiu-jitsu so much longer than the rest of the world and the energy and heart you see at the tournaments is like nowhere else.

Have you seen any changes in Brazil’s competition scene in all the years you have spent there?

I have seen changes over the years, but I have seen a lot of things stay the same. There have been some big improvements to the scene in Brazil, but there are also problems that still affect the sport from pushing forward. Hopefully with the IBJJF and UAEJJF doing more and more big events in Brazil, the sport continues to progress and grow.

There is always talk (mostly from disgruntled losers) of discrimination against non-Brazilians, as an embedded gringo what is your take on this?

This happens very little in my opinion. I lived 10 years in Brazil and was competing almost 15-20 tournament every year. I have had rough calls in matches, just like any competitor but I don’t believe that it is because I am a gringo. I believe 99 percent of the people who complain about this don’t have a solid understanding of the rules. There is so much grey area in the rules and the refs in Brazil have so much experience, so they play rules very close to the book. I have refed in Brazil as well and every tournament as a referee I have learned new details or nuances in the rules that I never knew from just competing.

Can you think of any personal anecdotes of memorable things you have seen while competing?

I went to Manaus last year for the first time to compete at the state tournament. I was blown away with how strong jiu-jitsu is there, they had 3600 competitors competing over four days. I was completely blown away with the level of the competitors I saw there. I am absolute jiu-jitsu nerd and was a big fan of the scene there before competing there, but after going and fighting there I will need to go back every year to feel that energy and jiu-jitsu culture.

Finally, any do’s and don’t for a first-timer competing on the mats in Brazil?

Try to find your ring coordinator to see what mat you are on, and so he knows who you are. A lot of times the Brazilians can’t pronounce the gringo names properly and you might not here your name being called. As long as they know what you look like they can go find you. As far as that nothing really comes to mind. Just be as respectful as possible and be humble in victory or defeat.